Ethical use of social media: The responsibility of human services providers


Although these are anonymous Twitter posts that speak about work and client struggles, similar posts appear with name attribution. How would you feel if this was your social worker’s post?

[avatar user=”Melanie Sage” size=”thumbnail” align=”left”]Melanie Sage husITa Board Member[/avatar]

Social media opens up new worlds to connect and communicate. We use blogs (like this one!) or micro-blogging sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to connect with peers, find social support, create new friendships, and gather quick information. For some, these are such natural extensions of our lives that they are naturally integrated into our day. We check our social media first thing in the morning, throughout the work day, and have alerts pushed to our phones. We carry our friends in our pockets and let them know frequently how we are doing.

Social media tools, however, are sometimes not a fit when working with clients who are vulnerable and who are also protected by confidentiality laws. How do human service agencies strike a balance between freedom of employees and protecting client privacy when offering workers guidance in this new social media environment? One way is to provide clear agency expectations about social media use, just as you would about other types of client communication and professional identification.

In a study of social workers (n=107) conducted by several HuSITA board members (Sage, Quinn, & Fitch, 2013), 51% of workers said that either agency had no policy about social media use or they were unsure about the policy, and 30% reported that social media has created an ethical concern at their agency. Over 40% reported that it is acceptable to search for clients via social media out of curiosity, although 78% reported that either their supervisors did not approve of such searches or they were not sure if their supervisors would approve. Most of the respondents (83%) report that their agency provides no training or they are not aware of any agency-sponsored training regarding the appropriate use of social media.

Given these reports, it is likely that human service workers are relying on other sources of information such as the behaviors of their peers or their own values related to social media, which vary according to age, exposure, and other personal variables (Watson, 2013). When creating a social media policy, agencies should take several considerations in to account. According to our survey respondents, many human service workers see social media as a valuable tool which can aid in assessment of risk, help find missing parents, and help locate possible supportive kin. Thus, the risks of social media use should be measured against their potential benefits, and social media should not be excluded from agency use unless it is clear that the risks outweigh the benefits. Policy should be logical, implementation must be feasible, and workers must be given the resources necessary (like technology access, training, clarity, and guidance) to abide by the policy.

People who will use the policy should participate in its creation. (See Kraft & Furlong, 2013, for additional guidance on policy assessment.) Several websites offer useful examples of social media policies for human service settings (Institute for Local Government, 2014; National Resource Center for Child Welfare Data and Technology, 2012) although few specifically address contact via social media. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s (2014) social media policy offers autonomy with exceptions and recommendations related to this issue: Physician/patient online interactions are subject to the same professional boundaries as they are in any other physician/patient setting, and MSKCC employees are discouraged from “friending” patients unless the relationship existed prior to the individual being treated at MSKCC. MSKCC physicians should exercise caution when posting comments online that may be considered providing medical care and know that such comments could be subject to liability. Additionally, superiors are discouraged from “friending” employees unless the employee initiates the interaction, and employees should not feel obligated to accept such requests from their superiors as part of their employment.

Before implementing policy, agencies should also have the policy reviewed by their legal and/or human resources department. The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that certain kinds of employee speech is protected, including their social media posts, when that speech is for the purposes of organizing workers around labor practices. Therefore, agencies cannot make blanket policies that exclude workers from discussing their work via social media. Policy should be specific, and training should include practical examples. Discussion is another way to help elevate attention to the possible benefits and unintended consequences of social media use in the workplace. Here are some questions to get human service workers thinking about their social media use:

  1. If you search for a client without her/his consent and run across a troubling post alluding to suicide, how do you address and document it?
  2. What are the possible positive and negative implications of “friending” other service providers (therapists, judges, attorneys, foster parents)?
  3. Is it ok to “friend” former clients? If so, after how long? What are the possible risks?
  4. Is it acceptable to serve a client who you know casually via social media? If so, what are the possible risks?
  5. Is it ok to search for and contact a missing client via social media, and if so, from a personal account?
  6. Is it ok for supervisors or human resource offices to search for new human service providers via social media? If so, what screening criteria are being used?


Institute for Local Government. (2014). Sample social media policies. Institute for Local Government. Retrieved February 22, 2014, from

Kraft, M. E., & Furlong, S. R. (2012). Public Policy: Politics, Analysis, and Alternatives. SAGE. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. (2014). Public notices: Social media guidelines for employees. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Retrieved February 23, 2014, from

National Resource Center for Child Welfare Data and Technology. (2012). Social media for child welfare resource guide (p. 10). Washington, DC. Retrieved from

Sage, M., Quinn, A., & Fitch, D. (2013). Use of social media in direct practice: Implications for training and policy. Presented at the CSWE Annual Program Meeting, Dallas, TX.

Watson, I. R. (2013). Digital natives or digital tribes? Retrieved from   socialmedia